Bill Belichick has established himself as one of the best coaches in professional sports. The winning culture of the Patriots is as good as it gets, sustainable at a championship level year after year. He’s been so good with the Patriots that it’s hard to believe he once got fired as the coach of the Cleveland Browns. I’m sure he’s grown a lot as a leader and learned from his mistakes in Cleveland to help him in New England, and having Tom Brady and players like him certainly makes a big difference. But it still makes you ask the question, why didn’t it work for Belichick in Cleveland?
It’s also interesting to look at Belichick’s assistant coaches and coordinators – Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis, Josh McDaniels, Eric Mangini – and how they’ve struggled to have success as NFL head coaches. I’d say the jury is still out on Bill O’Brien. But these guys were all integral parts of the Patriot machine, yet as head coaches they have stumbled.
One simple explanation is the difference between being a head coach and an assistant. The leadership necessary to be a head coach isn’t the same as it is when you are an assistant, and there are plenty of people who are great assistants who aren’t comfortable leading the entire group as a head coach. That could be a factor, although it would be a pretty interesting coincidence that all of Belichick’s coordinators – whom just about everyone touted as future head coaches – didn’t have the leadership qualities to run their own team. I don’t know anything about these guys personally and I’m not making a judgment – there are so many factors that go into the success of an organization, and each situation is unique.
But one of those factors is really interesting to me as a head coach, and it was missing for Belichick in Cleveland as well as for his assistants when they took over head jobs – winning. In Cleveland, Belichick didn’t have winning to back up what he was doing, and most new head coaches don’t have that either. As his culture grew in Foxboro, and they started winning Super Bowls, he had the most important factor backing him up with everything he did – success. Think about bringing in guys like Corey Dillon, Randy Moss, LeGarette Blount – guys who had some attitude issues at different spots, and how they’ve been able to fit in and be productive in New England. The single most important factor to me in that success is the Patriots winning culture.
We established a great culture at Rhode Island College and were able to win at a high level consistently. But the battle to establish our culture was a lot harder in the beginning, with a program that wasn’t used to winning. We were fortunate to have a lot of talent when I first took over and our first team won 19 games. Our second team won 27 and went to the Elite 8. We had the talent to make up for some mistakes while we were still buying in to the process (believe me when I tell you that first team should have won more than 19 games). It wasn’t always easy, especially early, and it was always very fragile. But as we started to win it became easier.
At the University of Maine it’s a different challenge. We don’t have a winning culture to back up what we are doing every day. And that makes it more of a challenge. When you have an established winning culture, the “why” doesn’t need to be explained as much. The why is simple. We do it this way because it helps us win. And it works. But when you don’t have winning to back you up, the hard stuff becomes really hard. It’s easy for the players to ask why you have to do something, or if it really works. Because they haven’t seen it work yet.
I’m not trying to say winning cures everything, or that winning is the answer. But consistent winning (or losing) can have an impact on the way you establish your culture. What you communicate to your players. How you get them to believe. Understanding why you are doing all of the hard stuff is essential when you aren’t winning consistently. So as a coach, you have to think about that. I’ve had to think about it a lot at Maine. It’s why winning cultures are so powerful. When you bring new people into a winning culture, they just follow the veterans and do things the same way, because they know it leads to winning. Once you’ve established it, the winning culture perpetuates itself.
Perhaps the toughest thing to do as a coach is establish a winning culture where there has never been one before. One of the simple reasons is because you don’t have winning to back up what you are doing. You are still trying to establish that. As a coach, you have to think about that. Winning is extremely powerful and takes care of a lot of the buy-in issues you may face as a coach. When you don’t have winning your approach needs to be different.